Pointing the Trigger Finger

By Cliff Sloan,
the publisher of Slate magazine and general counsel of Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive
Wednesday, December 7, 2005


One Man's Battle

With the Gun Industry

By Carol X. Vinzant

Palgrave. 228 pp. $29.95

By now, the gun control debate has become predictable. Advocates point to the laxity of gun laws and the high percentage of gun victims in the United States; opponents maintain that gun rights are important for self-defense and recreation. After a brief crest in favor of gun control in 1993 and 1994, which saw passage of the Brady Bill and the ban on assault weapons, such strictures now seem to be political poison. Some blame gun politics for Democratic defeats in the 2000 presidential race (with the loss of key states like West Virginia) and in Congress in 1994 and 2002. Just weeks ago, Congress passed special legislation to shield the gun industry from litigation.

In "Lawyers, Guns, and Money," Carol X. Vinzant focuses on an individual gun victim and the gritty facts of the gun industry. She is far from impartial. To her, the National Rifle Association is evil and manipulative, and gun control advocates are heroic and courageous. But Vinzant's attention to one victim -- and to the cold reality of the gun industry's economics -- allows her to move beyond the familiar generalities.

On Dec. 7, 1993, a lawyer named Tom McDermott happened to be on a Long Island Rail Road commuter train when Colin Ferguson opened fire with a Ruger 9mm pistol. He killed six people and wounded 19, including McDermott. A former prosecutor working for an obscure state agency, McDermott found his life upended. He was particularly enraged that Ferguson had been able to use a 15-bullet clip, which allowed him to keep shooting without reloading. Searching for a way to fight back, McDermott became a consulting lawyer in litigation against gun manufacturers. He soon discovered what he believed to be a suspicious insurance company that supported low-end gun companies manufacturing cheap, often defective handguns. Frequently at his own expense, he began an investigative crusade, showing up unannounced at offices across the country, in the Caribbean and in Central America.

McDermott finds two tiers to the gun industry: long-established companies such as Smith & Wesson; and a "Ring of Fire" (named for a chain of volcanic islands) of six low-budget, low-quality companies making products that are shoddy and widely available to criminals. He pursues the insurance company as a way of striking at what he sees as shifty operations keeping low-end companies afloat.

But Vinzant's book has many flaws. Although she is an experienced journalist, her writing is sometimes clumsy. For example, she bizarrely introduces McDermott as having "the general look of John McCain, if the Arizona senator were a typical suburban commuter." She can also lapse into cliche in describing gun control adversaries, and the book lacks a satisfying resolution. Although McDermott's plan to file a sweeping lawsuit against the insurance kingpin is a central part of Vinzant's narrative, McDermott still has not filed his long-planned litigation. Meanwhile, the insurer, along with some Ring of Fire companies, has gone out of business, and Vinzant suggests that McDermott may deserve some credit for its inability to reemerge.

Despite those flaws, Vinzant provides a valuable contribution to the gun control debate. Her emphasis on an individual victim brings the issue to life through an intensely personal depiction. And her emphasis on the economics suggests a path for careful thinking about gun issues -- detailed attention to the unglamorous nuts and bolts of the industry's financial structure. Vinzant persuasively suggests that, when one looks at gun manufacturers as a business rather than through a gauze of romanticism or a shroud of demonization, it becomes difficult to refute the proposition that the gun industry, like any other, should be held accountable for the foreseeable damage that it causes.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company